Shift work plays an important part in our 24/7 economy, yet many workers struggle to achieve proper rest and a healthy sleep cycle. PETA SIGLEY offers practical tips for how employers can improve the sleep health of their shift workers.
From a business standpoint, shift work is an effective way to meet the demands of a 24/7 economy. Yet while it sustains business operations around the clock, it can also put staff wellbeing and workplace safety at risk. According to a recent study by the University of Western Australia, 97% of shift workers are unable to adjust their body clocks between day and night shifts, meaning they miss out on good quality sleep as a result. Furthermore, research shows that 80% of shift workers feel tired at work, 60% believe they doze off at work at least once a week and 20% actually fall asleep during a night shift.
One of the main reasons people struggle is because shift work, particularly night shift, requires a sleep–wake schedule that conflicts with our biological clocks in both sleep and wakefulness. On average, a shift worker’s sleep cycle is 2–4 hours shorter than that of a day worker, their sleep tends to be lighter and frequently interrupted, and they are more likely to experience sleep loss, excessive sleepiness, sleep deprivation and insomnia.
It is unsurprising then that shift work presents unique health risks. If unaddressed, prolonged fatigue can lead to poor physical health — including migraines, poor immunity, insulin resistance, heart disease and stroke — and can have a negative impact on mental health too, as extreme fatigue and feelings of isolation can lead to stress, anxiety and depression. It is a frightening prospect, but the dangers do not stop there. When it comes to workplace operations, fatigue can cause poor concentration and focus, flawed memory, slower reaction times and an overall reduction in productivity and performance.
This kind of impaired cognitive functioning leads to an increased risk of accidents. Research shows the incidence of workplace accidents is 60% higher among shift workers compared to non-shift workers. In fact, a report by the Sleep Health Foundation found the consequences of poor sleep health are costing Australian businesses $26.2 billion annually. It is critical that employers take measures to ensure fatigue does not create workplace health and safety risks, not only because of their duty of care to staff, but to avoid the significant price tag attached to poor sleep.
Promoting sleep health in the workplace
To support sleep health in the workplace, employers can:
- Allow employees to choose their own shifts: This provides greater control and satisfaction among employees, contributing to improved health and quality of life — and while not always operationally possible, it can be a great starting point for developing a shift pattern that has a higher level of staff acceptance.
- Rotate shifts clockwise: Because of the way our biological clocks work, it is easier to adjust to shifts that go from a day shift, to an evening shift, to a night shift, rather than rotating the other way or without a pattern.
- Ensure a well-lit workspace: This is important in helping employees to adjust their circadian rhythm (in other words, their body clock) to an altered sleep–wake cycle.
- Introduce workplace health initiatives: Initiatives like sleep disorder screening or regular health checks will encourage employees to keep an eye on their long-term health and to identify any red flags early.
- Allow sufficient breaks: This will ensure focus is maintained after highly complex or mundane tasks, especially around 4 am — a point when shift workers are most at risk of falling asleep.
- Provide exercise equipment (eg, a stationary bike): This will encourage staff to take cognitive breaks to boost focus and energy.
Encouraging healthy sleep practices at home
In addition, it is important that employers encourage healthy sleep habits in their staff. While the nature of shift work is unlikely to change, it is crucial that shift workers understand the importance of maintaining a healthy sleep cycle. Employers should encourage workers to:
- Adapt their circadian rhythm: For night-shift workers, a combination of intermittent bright light during the night shift, dark sunglasses for the commute home and a regular daytime sleep in a very dark room is significantly effective in shifting their circadian rhythm to adapt to a new sleep cycle.
- Plan strategic 20-minute naps: Short naps before a shift can be helpful for alertness and reducing fatigue at work — they are also helpful towards the end of a shift to avoid staff falling asleep at the wheel while traveling home.
- Create an effective sleeping environment: Workers can do this by avoiding alcohol and caffeine close to bedtime, sleeping in a temperature of 18°C and minimising light.
Shift work will always present challenges, but if we intend to keep up with the demands of a global economy, it is critical that we support the health and safety of workers, helping ensure a better quality of life beyond the workplace as well.
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